Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Identity theft and genealogy

Every so often the subject of identity theft comes up in a genealogical context. Recently, Dick Eastman has a post called "Using Your Mother's Maiden Name for "Security."" I always thought that was a strange security question myself, especially since mother's maiden names seem to show up regularly and first and middle names of siblings and even more since the advent of online computer databases. But I am getting off of the point, one of the reasons these businesses have a "security" question is because they believe that security is necessary. OK, so why is security necessary?

Let's get some history here. In the olden days, pre-personal computer, thieves and bunko artists would have to steal something physical to masquerade as someone else. To assume someone's identity, they would have to have a driver's license or a blank check or forged birth certificate. (Wait a minute, isn't this still going on?) When I was in the retail computer business, a lady stole some checks from a professor and one of the local universities and went on a buying spree across Phoenix. We lost a whole computer system to this lady who escaped and was never caught. OK, so that kind of activity is what we conveniently call today, "identity theft."

But that kind of activity, now called identity theft, was pretty rare. We only had one instance in nearly 11 years of selling computers. So why all the fuss today? Why is there even a mention of the "security" problem among us esoteric genealogy buffs? Because let's face it, identity theft is a big business today. There are whole insurance companies dedicated to selling you identity theft insurance. It is sort of like the old Reader's Digest illness of the month. Where each month Reader's Digest would come up with some new horrible disease for all of us to worry about. Ostensibly, so that someone could start a foundation to eradicate the disease. Have you ever read a history of advertising in America?

Are you aware that there is no single agreed upon definition of "identity theft." A specific Google search on "identity theft definition" brought up 744,000 results. There are huge numbers of news articles discussing the applicability of a 2003 statute called the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, 15 U.S.C. §1681(m)(e), which requires financial institutions and creditors to develop protocols to detect and prevent identity theft. Those institutions are also required to take measures when "red flags" signaling identity fraud are detected, including possibly reporting the warning signs to law enforcement. As noted in one protest from the American Bar Association when the law was applied to attorneys: (See Law.Com)
The ABA's Wells, in his statement, contended that Congress did not intend to apply the 2003 law's definition of "creditors" to lawyers who "merely bill for services after they are rendered."
"Regardless of the specifics of billing arrangements," Wells stated, "lawyers cannot ethically charge for legal services until they are rendered."
The FTC has not identified "a single case of identity theft in the legal services context, suggesting that such a scenario is far-fetched, if not impossible," he added.
Identity theft became a federal crime in 1998 with the passage of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act.  OK, now how many people have been convicted under that act since 1998? Got any ideas? Do you realize how hard it is to find any statistics on that subject? A search of WestLaw shows a grand total of 16 Federal cases ever to have even cited the law and most of those merely cite the law and have nothing at all to do with a prosecution of a crime.

Then why are there so many articles and headlines claiming that identity theft is out of control? Because it is a good way to get additional government funding for law enforcement and expand federal and state agencies. It is common to claim tens of millions of victims of identity theft each year.  Think about it, over a ten year period that would mean more than 1/3 of the entire U.S. population would have been victims of identity theft. 100,000,000 victims with only less than 16 Federal prosecutions!!! There is a serious disconnect here.

 The disconnect is simple, crime reporting agencies include all sorts of crimes under the umbrella of identity theft. If you lose your credit card and someone tries to use it, you are the victim of an identity theft. If someone breaks into a bank's computer and steals thousands of credit card numbers, each of those is considered a victim.

So, you are asking, what is the reality? And what does genealogy have to do with any of this. That is the point, genealogy has little or nothing to do with identity theft.

Stay tuned for the next installment.

1 comment:

  1. Paranoid concern with identity theft is what has been behind the numerous actions in many states to pass laws restricting access to vital records. It is ridiculous. What identity thief is going to pay a fee of anywhere from $5 to $25 or more to the bureaucracy for ONE document when all he or she has to do is get in one good dumpster dive or have a good run raiding mailboxes and come up with hundreds or even thousands of bits of useful stolen information?

    It is just absurd.

    Nice hair-splitting by the ABA, by the way. I thought the definition of "creditor" was someone to whom one legitimately owes money, regardless of the timing of the presentation of the bill. Silly me!